The great struggle of an introductory class in religious studies is to give students confidence in the value of the field while laying the foundations for them to understand three central features of it: 1) there is no agreement whatsoever on what does and what does not count as religion; 2) there is no agreement whatsoever about what it means that we can’t agree about what counts as religion; and 3) that because of the former two features, we also cannot agree about whether we should or should not police the boundaries of our discipline. Because of these features, basic questions about who should even teach in a religious studies department, what they should teach, and how what they teach connects to the humanities or social sciences, or to how they are situated in a given institution and vis-à-vis other institutions (like churches, the judiciary, public schools, public ethicists, etc.), also cannot be settled. And this is just the beginning. We also cannot agree whether theology should or should not be taught in religious studies departments. We cannot agree about whether the colonialism that was foundational to the creation of the concept of religion is damning to that concept or not, or what it would even mean to answer that question one way or the other. We cannot agree about whether “religious literacy” (whatever that is) is valuable to teach or actually hinders student understanding of the broader point that “religion” is a constructed category. The list is endless.
And yet, I go to class when and where it is scheduled with the syllabus I have drawn up with vexation, and I work my way through with my students. I begin every semester by introducing them to how our discipline is not going to talk about a natural feature of the world: religion. I point out that what might be meant by “religion” to people from different religions varies. In this way, I take religion as a natural feature of human life through appeal to students’ everyday notion that there are people who “belong” to different religions. But then, relying on that everyday notion, I induce students to see that those people, those ones whom we take to belong to different versions of this category of thing called “religion,” themselves would not agree about the properties of that category of thing. In this way, I need the constructed term to function as fixed in order to help students to see how it is constructed. When that happens, when the student has been relying on the fixity of the term and starts to see that it is in fact constructed, then the student stares back at the fixed term as if watching the bridge they’ve just crossed begin to crumble. If that happens, then the students have arrived where I want them to be: in a state of utter perplexity, an extreme non-knowing, an abyss.
In her recent essay asking “Is Public Philosophy Good?,” Agnes Callard outlines the way in which she perceives the discipline of philosophy to assiduously maintain its boundaries precisely so that it may bring students to the place where they realize that they don’t know even the most basic things. Callard claims for philosophy a unique ability to introduce students to this state, and thereby justifies the policing of the discipline’s boundaries. (For example, Callard explains that her department at the University of Chicago does not, on principle, grant credit towards the philosophy major for courses taken outside the department.)
The discipline that polices itself so that its students become non-knowers gives its students a false non-knowing, for that non-knowing rests on a refusal to sit with the profound discomfort of the constructed nature of the very discipline that is promoted as that which can bring them to non-knowing. Thus, Callard’s easy reference to the fixities of the discipline—there is a department, we are the professors, our courses are assigned classrooms, the students come, and, in that space, we read and think and are philosophers together—belies the many acts of exclusion that create the fixed foundation from which philosophers play at non-knowing. These exclusions are legion. An important one is that “philosophy” is still unselfconsciously taken by most philosophers to be Western philosophy. To point this out to scholars who take philosophy as such is to find oneself an unwilling participant in a shell game, in which philosophy is now defined as precisely involving a certain Western canon, and now taken to be a sort of universally available method of thinking which, alas, is not found outside of that canon. Any non-knowing that emerges within a classroom where thought is contained by this kind of willfully ignorant certainty is, I think, false.
In religious studies, by contrast, our students learn non-knowing not by thinking their way to it, but by actually not knowing, up to and including a profound unknowing about the conditions that make possible our sitting together in a classroom under the auspices of a field we call religious studies. And I believe the best teachers and thinkers in our field, those most honest and alive to the range of positions in our discipline and to the range of incompatible positions they require from us, model it for them. So when, in my introductory course, we do a section on important recent events figured in an essential way by some notion of religion, I am always uncertain whether I should take a position on the issue in question (e.g., the Masterpiece Cakeshop case), push my students to take a position on the issue, or simply talk about the issue, refraining from any such position. If I do the former, am I performing the policing of moral boundaries that religious studies scholar Robert Orsi calls good religion/bad religion, sorting through religious phenomena for my students to indicate to them which are acceptable and which not? But if I refuse to take a position, perhaps I am simply an intellectual and moral coward. The truth is, I don’t know which position to take and when I pick one or the other—as I must—I don’t know the fullness of what the choice means. But I still go to class and work my way through it with my students and hope that they can see the rich contours of the non-knowing that we are together thrust into.
Another example: I am a professor of Buddhism and East Asian religions, with training in the philosophy of religion as a Buddhist philosopher (all very vexed positions, in which the discipline of philosophy haunts everything that I do), but I am also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest and founder and teacher of a Zen Buddhist community that is based in the small rural city near my college. My students are invariably interested in my two roles, and seek to understand how what I do with them in the classroom relates to what I do and who I am as a Zen priest, teacher, and leader of a small Buddhist group. In the beginning, when we are just setting out and the bridge is still stable, I make it casual, telling them that these are simply two different roles that I have. At the end, when the bridge has entirely collapsed and we are falling together, I think with them about questions like the one a student asked me yesterday. Her question was prompted by her attendance at the talk of a visiting Zen Buddhist priest and activist, Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, who has recently come into national prominence as a religious voice for change, with a focus on the profound wounds of racialization that are open and bleeding everywhere in our country. The student asked: Should all education be about healing wounds? When I asked her what she thought the answer is, she reflected and, having at one point taken a course in Ancient Philosophy (by which was meant the Greeks), she said: “Well, the Greek philosophers, I mean Aristotle, he aimed for happiness, right? Doesn’t that mean there must have been some wound he sought to heal? So is suffering really the condition of all humans? And if so, shouldn’t education aim at healing it?” We talked it through. What about the kind of education that makes people competent practitioners of some art or science? Is that just training, rather than education? Is healing akin to activism? If so, is healing partisan? If so, is that a problem? Is a college the right institutional space for healing? And if it’s not right now, should it be? What would be lost and gained if it were? And so on.
I did not then and do not now have answers for her, but she and I sat together genuinely in the space of non-knowing. This space’s condition is not the fixity of the discipline of religious studies. Rather, the condition for her question, in particular, was the fact that I—her teacher—had chosen, as a scholar of the discipline of religious studies, to breach the already unsteady boundary of our discipline. I invited to our college a person who is not a scholar, but who is situated within a religious tradition and practice, thereby signaling that I won’t perform a (for me false) acceptance of the (for me) false scholarly objectification of “religious people” and “religious practices” and “religion” itself. My student could feel that the visit of this Zen priest and activist was showing to us the constructedness of our religious studies department, our discipline, our methods, our questions. And this is how she got to her question. The conditions for that question and of our space of non-knowing were not a false fixity—of discipline, department, textual canon, or room number—but the recognition of the realities of the historical, cultural, political, and moral embeddedness of our very moments of thinking together.
In Callard’s essay, the fixity of the discipline of philosophy is not ostensibly posited in contraposition to other academic disciplines, which is how I have figured it here thus far. Instead, that fixity is positioned in relation to the public. Philosophy proper, her essay begins, takes place with the fixed position of an intellectual discipline housed within an academic institution, led by a professional philosopher. These are the conditions that produce the non-knowing of which she writes. Callard’s question—Is public philosophy good?—is a thinking through of her not knowing about whether her discipline really should be fixed within an academic institution or whether instead it can be practiced in public spaces, like newspaper articles, popular internet forums, or perhaps a seminar at the local public library. By posing this question, she rightly points to the history, indeed founding, of the very discipline that now represents itself as fixed in a certain way: Socrates engaged continually with non-philosophers.
I commend this question for its spirit of not knowing, but I can answer it right now. So long as the occasion for thinking about philosophy’s relationship to the public is that the fixity of philosophy is the occasion for its unique relationship among academic disciplines to the eruption of not knowing, the answer to her question will be no, public philosophy is not good. To consider what the public is and how philosophy is positioned against it will betray the way that the not knowing Callard writes of is false, precisely because it rests on a certainty—about what the discipline of philosophy is vis-à-vis other academic disciplines—that is false.
In the discipline of religious studies, we have no such certainties, or maybe some of us do, but the field is constituted in good part by our debates with each other about them, and everybody knows that. I wrote above that as a scholar of religious studies I am haunted by philosophy. It is the discipline I would be a part of had I not been repelled by its false certainties and fixities, most importantly its apparently a priori certainty about what counts as philosophy in the first place. But also, when I say I am haunted by philosophy, I mean more than this. I mean something like what Kathryn Lofton means when she writes that as a historian of religion, she is haunted by the discipline of history. For Lofton, history is a discipline confident in its methods’ ability to capture its object, even when those methods are a topic of intra-mural dispute among historians. By contrast, Lofton writes of religious studies departments: “Our ordering fact is that we do not, ostensibly, share a disciplining method, but rather that we share a relation to a maddeningly problematic, inciting and freighted object: religion.”
Callard’s essay betrays a confidence like that Lofton attributes to historians, a confidence in the discipline of philosophy’s capacity to bring its practitioners (among whom Callard counts any student who finds herself in a philosophy course, which is generous while yet a symptom of the problematic confidence I write of) to the heights, or depths, of thinking itself. Lofton situates the discipline of history as in a kind of denominational dispute with the sorts of histories produced by and methods practiced by church historians. In parallel fashion, I situate the discipline of philosophy as in a denominational dispute with any intellectual discipline for whom inquiry into the conditions of its own existence is seen as crucial to understanding its very identity and function. This is the inquiry philosophy cannot allow itself to withstand, does not actually have the confidence to withstand. And so, for example, the philosophers’ refusal to travel down the bridge leading to thought by starting with a recognition of their kin from other places and times—like the thinkers who have sustained multi-millennia traditions of inquiry into things like the formation of the moral subject, the conditions that produce knowledge, the study of what kinds of things exist or what existence itself is, or the procedures of reason in South Asia and East Asia (to name the two with which I am most familiar)—is not an accident that will eventually be corrected through increasing familiarity with those foreign philosophies. It is a symptom of the very feature that holds the discipline together: the refusal to look at its own conditions.
While I am haunted by philosophy because of the certainties and confidences it would afford me if only I were permitted into its ranks as a philosopher of Buddhism (certainties and confidences which, for the sake of thought itself, I am happy to find myself unburdened by), Callard’s inquiry into the potentials—the potential goodness—of public philosophy is haunted by this refusal. And the specter of the false confidence that accompanies this refusal haunts her essay, beginning as she does with a performance of it, and then setting forth into a question that will ultimately be devoured by it. I would suggest to Callard then, for the sake of non-knowing, to step back from the question of publics and examine the conditions from which she asks that question. From here, I think, the kinds of inquiries that arise from genuine non-knowing may begin.